Kota the Friend’s ‘FOTO’ turns One Year Old Today, and it’s as Relevant as Ever

 Evan Dale // May 15, 2020 

Kota the Friend’s FOTO turns one-year old today, and it’s as relevant, influential, and timeless as ever. One year later, and it’s still the strongest individual effort put forth by anyone, anywhere in music anytime during 2019 or 2020, at least. Its name, relative to its year, shares a hip-hop stage only with the once-in-a-lifetime collection that was Revenge of the Dreamers lll – arguably the best album of 2019 if for no other reason that its unparalleled feat had never been achieved before. No one else had a chance, and still, Kota the Friend made it a tossup. 


For Kota’s part – the Brooklyn rapper is an adept wordsmith – arguably the most potent in hip-hop. And that ability – that uncanny knack for telling vibrant stories – is only undermined in its reputation by the fact that Kota is so laid-back (at least in the studio, but if ever the opportunity to see him live presents himself to you, it’s a high-energy, life-changing kind of show that must be seen). 


Nonetheless, the most mellow of hip-hop artists rarely also pack the most poetic punch. But Kota isn’t most hip-hop artists. In fact, hip-hop has never seen anything like him before; nor has hip-hop ever heard anything like FOTO before. Only comparable in its overarching storyline and prowess as a coming of age tale to Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid m.A.A.d City; Only comparable in its rainy-day texture and its lazy-day vibes to Jay Prince’s CHERISH, Only comparable in its relatable, youthful, anthemic texture to Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon; Kota the Friend’s FOTO is a coalescing middle ground of those three artists and their strongest projects, respectively. 


But he’s also much more than that. Kota the Friend is a member of their prestigious company, sure to unearth even more artistic newness and raw poeticism with forthcoming project, Everything, expected May 22. But while it’s still his latest album, let’s focus on FOTO – a masterpiece by an artist sure to go down as one of hip-hop’s timeless masters – for one more week, before we listen to it again and again for the rest of our lives.


FOTO is a project that – no matter how hard he may try – Kota the Friend will never equal again. He’ll never have the opportunity to tell his life’s story with the same richness and prosperity that he did with the album. Any attempt to do so would just be an attempt to remake the greater tale told in FOTO, and Kota the Friend is far too creatively inclined for such a stunt. So, it will subsist as his life’s work, even if his subsequent albums come to sound as good, change hip-hop just as much, and bring an even bigger audience his way. 


Pulling together his experiences, and those around him, stretching back to his childhood, his family, and his friends, to what feels like the moments in the booth before it was released, FOTO is a photo album of Kota the Friend’s quickly diminishing pre-fame life. It lives as a diary of what came before what is about to come. And what came before it, depicted as a natural, fluid, mostly-content collection of memories, is a story that most could bring to life as their own version if they had the creative wherewithal that Kota does. But, since we don’t, and since you probably don’t either, we listen to FOTO instead in the hopes of relating to its unavoidably relatable entirety.


Arranged as a storyline narrated by family and friends, FOTO unfolds from the time he’s a ‘young blood’ growing up in his neighborhood (Full Bloom), to the time he’s reflecting on his photobook of experiences in the album’s titular closing track. The 17 songs and intermissions bookended all exude their own situational energies, applicable to certain moments of life, love, loss, family, friends, struggles, and exaltations that all of us experience and can ultimately relate to. FOTO is anthemic on life’s scale, able to listen to in full, evoking memories and emotion of our pasts in the process, or broken up piecemeal, soundtracking the particular moments we wish to reflect on or live within. 


It’s also simply a great hip-hop project. Like we touched on, Kota the Friend is in the company not only of the modern scene’s most lyrically gifted wordsmiths, but in the company of history’s as well. And never does a moment exist during FOTO where his raw rap ability isn’t on the foremost pedestal. Whether moving to a slower cadence, or a couple hundred words a minute, he uses each and every one of them to say something. He clearly has a lot to say. And his knack for switching up his flow not just track-to-track, but verse-to-bridge-to-chorus and back again, is as good as anyone else in a modern hip-hop era that prioritizes a rapper’s ability to transcend rap and change things up. To wit, he’s also an adept vocalist, often throughout FOTO sliding into melodic moments and harmonizing with his collaborative vocalists (see Birdie). 


So, before Kota the Friend release Everything in one week’s time, changing everything about his current state in hip-hop’s greater fold, give FOTO one more listen, and try not to forget that where he came from will eternally dictate where he’s bound to go.